It gets pushed to the side as most of us start putting the Christmas trimmings away and settle in for just a few more college football games, but Thursday is the Feast of the Epiphany for Western Christians. Historically, Epiphany has been a major feast of the Christian church, but in modernity the 12 days of Christmas have become little more than a traditional song, and Epiphany has become more obscure.
It probably does not help that most of what you know about Epiphany is more a matter of evolving tradition than anything in the biblical narrative. If you have a manger scene as part of your Christmas decorations, chances are there are three well-dressed fellows - perhaps on camels - each bearing a gift. The Bible, however, never calls them kings. For that matter, no number of visitors from the east is ever given. And if you read Matthew's story, the visitors arrive at a house and not a stable.
There were benign reasons for these traditions. The visitors began to be called kings because of the vision of Isaiah that kings would worship the Messiah. Three gifts mentioned in the gospels led to the tradition of three visitors that also reflected the trinity. The letters of the Latin house blessing became the initials of Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. And even though the visitors were likely Persian, they are often portrayed as Asian, African and European to symbolize the universal nature of the Messiah.
While all of these traditions emerged to reinforce the idea that Jesus was the anointed, something crucial that is in the biblical story has been overlooked. Matthew calls the visitors Magi. Literally they were magicians. The term fell from grace in the Middle Ages because of its connection to witchcraft. For us, a magician is a kind of entertainer. Some substituted the word priest, but that word limits our thinking to religious practitioners.
The Magi were scientists. They studied the stars and the planets and pondered the mysteries of the universe. Coming from the most advanced culture on the planet at the time, part of the significance of the visitation of the Magi is that it blended religion and science in a way that has not been seen since. They came from the east to see the great mystery expressed in the very physical and tangible form of flesh and blood. What this meant is that the great invisible God, believed to dwell on the mountain or in the temple was now visible in the form of a fragile vulnerable child; a child with no room who would have to be protected by human hands and carried to a foreign land to escape a hostile ruler.
Epiphany - a word that literally means "appearance" - is a feast that celebrates a radically intimate vision of the divine; a vision of a greater power of creation that dwells among, in, with, over, under and through the creation itself; that is understood, accepted and even worshiped by foreigners, strangers and even those presumed to be enemies. As we begin a new year in a new decade of a new millennium, might we also begin to ponder the mystery of a creative power that dwells among us; that joins us together as one even in the midst of our vast diversity? Like the scientists of long ago, might we become pilgrims willing to venture far beyond our comfortable boundaries to find that which joins us all as one?
Steve Hammer is the pastor at Esperanza Lutheran Church in Ahwatukee Foothills.